With summer officially here, I tend to turn some of my attention to baseball. There was a time when baseball filled my childhood. I was a huge baseball fan and when Spring Training came around I was in heaven.
In my teens I discovered that I could combine my two loves, baseball and golf. Thanks to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the wonderful complex known as Dodgertown in Vero Beach, I could roll into town with my sticks and my mitt and kill two birds with one stone.
By arriving early enough I could get in nine holes at Dodgertown Golf Course and then catch the afternoon game between the Dodgers and another club. I had to arrive early though, as they would close the course for parking a few hours before the ball game.
Of course I was not the first to think of this. Baseball players from the days of Babe Ruth often spent as much of their spring playing golf as they did hitting and fielding.
In 1948, Branch Rickey and co-owner, Walter O'Malley, moved the Dodgers' spring training operations from Pensacola to a disused 80-acre naval training base in Vero Beach. During World War II, the base served as a training facility for dive-bomber pilots learning to fly night missions. On the same property where pilots practiced strafing and bombing, the duo brought nearly 600 players to chase fly balls, run bases, swat mosquitoes and stay somewhat sober during their lonely evenings.
With the South still rampant with racial prejudice, many of the black players would travel to Fort Pierce on their free time to find public courses where they could enjoy a round of golf. In 1953, O'Malley had designed, with input from players and coaches, a pitch and putt golf course around a man-made lake on the property.
Because space was limited and there were only a few holes, O'Malley decided in 1965 to build and maintain his own course, adjacent to Holman Stadium. He hired a pair of minority coaches, Jim Gilliam, a former Dodger player and Preston Gomez to design the track.
The nine-hole course opened in 1965 and was available to all the Dodger players as well as the public. Being an avid golfer, O'Malley could often be found on the links.
To aid his own game, O'Malley oversaw the design and was in charge of where the bunkers were placed. When he noticed that one of his best friends and top competitors, Dr. Jim Priestly, tended to push his tee shots to the right, O'Malley soon had workers put bunkers in those very spots.
Even Kay O'Malley, Walter's wife, was often seen on the links with friends, including Leila Alston, wife of Dodgers' skipper Walt Alston.
The course featured nine holes, played to a par of 36 from the back tees and measured 2,823-yards long. From the forward tees the course played 2,433- yards long and the par was 35. The course was relatively flat with elevated greens and bunkers. Pine trees lined the fairways and water came into play on only a couple of holes.
Just past the leftfield mounds (there never were any outfield walls at Holman Stadium), sat the first tee. The opening hole was a par-5, playing just 452 yards. To get to the green in two, you had to go over the lake behind the third-base stands.
With the course being right on the Dodgertown property, players could be found there pretty much any time they weren't playing baseball. On a given day you could find Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella, Vin Scully or many more Hall of Famers enjoying a round.
Maury Wills learned the game of golf here. Being an African-American meant that many places weren't open to him and his fellow players. He found solace on the course and learned the game.
Sadly the end came in 2004 when the Dodgers were sold. The new ownership found that today's players weren't interested in playing the quaint course, regardless of its history, and shut the doors.
Soon after, the team picked up its bats, balls and mitts and moved its operation to Arizona. The Dodgers had spent 61 years in Vero Beach. The team, its players and fans were not just a part of the city's history; they were part of the city itself.
I don't happen by the old Dodgertown complex often, but when I do, seeing the vacant plot of land where Dodgertown Golf Course used to be makes me sad.
I think about all the great players who walked those grounds. I think of how difficult it must have been for those African-American ballplayers to find things to do in those days, and how wonderful it was that O'Malley built something for ALL of his players to enjoy.
James Stammer has been an avid golfer and golf enthusiast for nearly 40 years. He hosts the Thursday Night Golf Show on WSTU 1450-AM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.